That may not be such an easy task this season.
For the second year in a row, St. Louis and San Diego meet in the best-of-five series, beginning Tuesday afternoon at Petco Park.
The Cardinals won at least 100 games in 2004 and 2005, advancing to the World Series and NLCS, respectively. However, an almost historic collapse nearly cost St. Louis (83-78) a playoff spot this season before it clinched the NL Central title on Sunday—with a defeat no less.
San Diego (88-74) had already secured a playoff spot, but clinched its second straight NL West title by hanging on to beat Arizona 7-6 on Sunday. The Padres and the Los Angeles Dodgers finished with identical records, but San Diego won the season series 13-5, giving the Dodgers the wild card and a cross country trip to play the New York Mets in the other NLDS matchup.
“We don’t come out in spring training saying we want to win the wild card,” Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said. “We come in saying we want to win the West. We wanted to start off at home. We didn’t want to fly across the country and play the Mets in New York. Being able to start out at home is big.”
The Cardinals lost nine of 12 to end the season, nearly blowing a seven-game lead in the Central with 13 to play. St. Louis lost 5-3 to Milwaukee on Sunday, but clinched the division because Houston fell 3-1 to Atlanta earlier in the day.
“I don’t think anybody on this club wanted to be associated with mugging that lead,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. “That’s one of those historic things that you’ll never forget.”
Instead of starting the postseason at home, however, the Cardinals must travel to play San Diego, which they swept in three games in last season’s NLDS.
That was a different Padres team, though.
San Diego went 82-80 last season, the worst record ever by a division winner to qualify for the postseason in a non-strike year. But the Padres enter this series having won 12 of their last 16 to make the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time in franchise history.
They took four of six from St. Louis this year, including two of three at Busch Stadium last week as the Cardinals were faltering.
“You don’t want to go in limping like we did last year,” said Padres starter Woody Williams, who pitched for the Cardinals from 2001-04. “Obviously, this is a better team than last year. Expectations are higher. No team in the playoffs is going to roll over and make it easy. I think we’ve gotten what we deserved, and when we’ve had to, we’ve played very good baseball.”
The X-factor for the struggling Cardinals and the one batter San Diego likely dreads facing is Albert Pujols, who won the NL MVP award last season and may have had a better 2006 with 49 homers and 137 RBIs—both career highs— despite missing 18 games with a strained right oblique.
In 40 games against San Diego, including playoffs, Pujols is batting .404 with 14 homers and 44 RBIs. He went 5-for-9 in the NLDS last season and is batting .336 with 10 homers and 29 RBIs in 37 playoff games.
Carpenter was supposed to start Sunday against the Brewers, but La Russa gambled and held him back so the right-hander would be available to pitch two games this series if needed.
He struggled in his last two starts, allowing 12 runs and 21 hits in 15 innings, potentially damaging his chances of winning back-to-back NL Cy Young Awards. Before that, Carpenter was 5-0 with a 1.46 ERA over seven starts.
Carpenter allowed six runs and 12 hits in seven innings of a 7-5 loss to the Padres last Tuesday, the only time this season he allowed double-digits in hits.
Carpenter, though, dominated the Padres in last season’s series-opening victory. He allowed three hits in six scoreless innings and departed with an 8-0 lead before San Diego rallied for five runs in the final three innings.
Carpenter is 3-2 with a 3.29 ERA in six career starts against the Padres, including the playoffs.
Peavy allowed all eight runs and eight hits in 4 1-3 innings of that Game 1 loss, his only postseason start. He had a subpar 2006 season, but finished on a strong note, winning his last three decisions as the Padres surged to the division title.
The right-hander finished second in the NL with 215 strikeouts, but his 14 losses were a career high and he posted his highest ERA in four years.
Peavy is 1-3 with a 5.66 ERA in six career starts against St. Louis, including the postseason.